Amber Waves... from a Car Window
by Kate O'Hare
It's just before the Fourth of July, and Amber Benson is standing at a truck stop.
"We're on the border of Nevada and Utah," she says. "We've had a really good time. It's been an experience. I'm going to a 'Buffy' convention in Toronto, so we decided to cash in our plane tickets and drive to Toronto from Los Angeles."
"We are insane, but we all hate to fly. For me, I feel better being in the car, although they do say you have a better chance of being in an accident in a car than on a plane. Knowing me, I'd be on the one plane that had problems."
Benson knows something about bad luck, if the fate of her character on UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is any indication. After being introduced in the fourth season as a new college friend (and later, love interest) for budding witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), sorceress Tara Maclay eventually became a full-fledged member of slayer Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) "Scooby Gang."
Fans watched her grow from an awkward, stuttering, shy girl into a more confident young woman, who faced danger (and her overbearing family) for the sake of Willow. In the sixth-season finale, fortune turned against Tara when she was struck through the heart by a bullet fired by technogeek-turned-criminal Warren (Adam Busch), one of Buffy's few human foes.
In one of the show's more graphic death scenes, Tara's blood spatters on Willow. She then says, "Your shirt ... ." and falls forward.
"That was an experience," Benson recalls. "I did that many different ways, many different times. Took us all day just to do the death stuff. It was pretty intense. Then they gave me a cake at the end. I got a big tombstone that said, 'Rest in Peace, Tara Maclay.' Sarah was taking pictures. I'm holding a big knife, all bloody, with a bullet hole in my side and a piece of cake."
Series creator Joss Whedon is legendary for keeping plot points close to the vest, even with his actors -- but not always.
"He's the biggest cheater," Benson says. "He'll say something, and then two minutes later, it'll be the complete opposite. The only thing he didn't lie to me about -- because we were both so upset about it -- was the death stuff. I knew last season what was going to happen."
Many lesbian fans were outraged that the Tara-Willow love affair ended in tragedy. "I know, I know," Benson says. "A friend of mine is a lesbian, and we went to a lesbian bar with her right after it happened. I swear to you, this woman came over, and she was almost in tears. She was almost hysterical. 'I can't believe you're dead!'"
"She was really broken up about it. I felt so bad, because I didn't know what to say. It definitely was not my choice, but I felt it was the right thing to do, just for the show. That was the only thing that would destroy Willow."
"So I understood, storywise, that it needed to happen. She couldn't have just been maimed, right? It wouldn't have worked."
As is customary for the Scooby Gang, the relationship ended in pain -- which propelled Willow to gather up dark magical forces and nearly end the world. This past season, the affair between Buffy and vampire Spike (James Marsters) ended in a near-rape, and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) left Anya (Emma Caulfield) at the altar.
"It did last three seasons," reminds Benson about Tara and Willow. "Buffy can't seem to keep them. Xander and Anya are at each other's throats all the time. Maybe [Buffy's sister] Dawn will have a good relationship, I don't know. That's life. Life is like that. You can't expect the happy to be it, because without the crappy stuff, you can't understand how truly amazing the happy stuff is."
For the cast, the whole death scene had extra meaning, as it came not long after the premature death of a production office staffer, a young woman who was a good friend of Benson's.
"It just brought it all back," she recalls. "Sarah and I were talking about it. It was really traumatic for everybody who was friends with her, to have to go through somebody being dead on the show again. It was very weird, surreal."
Benson is currently putting finishing touches on "Chance," a movie she wrote and directed, which stars Marsters; "Buffy" writer David Fury; and Benson pal Andy Hallet, who plays the singing demon Lorne on "Buffy" spinoff "Angel," which airs on The WB. The dark comedy stars Benson as Chance, a woman in a screwball pursuit of the right guy.
"The composer is scoring it while I'm on my trip," Benson says, "then we'll be done. It's like going to film school. Everyone was super-supportive at 'Buffy.' Hopefully, we'll have some screenings when we're done, and we'll be able to sell it. If I can't sell it, I'll put it on the Internet. I want everybody to be able to see it."
"I made it for me, to be able to say, 'Look, I can do this. I have the confidence in myself that I didn't have before.'"
Benson returned the support she received by appearing in "The Enforcers," a crime caper written by "Angel" scribe Meredyth "Mere" Smith, which also stars Hallett, Marsters and "Felicity" star Tangi Miller (real-life girlfriend of "Angel's" Gunn, J. August Richards).
"I'm not quite sure what's up with it," Benson says. "I have to call her and find out. It's an action-adventure kind of thing. Martial arts, crazy stuff, totally."
As for the rumors that Benson may appear on "Buffy" this fall (though not necessarily as Tara, who remains dead), Benson says, "That is something that I cannot talk about. It is something that only Joss Whedon knows the answer to."